Academic journal article Papers: Explorations into Children's Literature

'Nothing Dirty about Turning on a Machine': Loving Your Mechanoid in Contemporary Manga

Academic journal article Papers: Explorations into Children's Literature

'Nothing Dirty about Turning on a Machine': Loving Your Mechanoid in Contemporary Manga

Article excerpt

   If something not human has emotions ... then it would be considered
   sentient--alive--just like a human. If it's the same as a human, it
   wouldn't be wrong to love that thing.
   (Chobits 8, p.93)

The relationships in contemporary manga and anime between humans and humanoid machines--robots, androids and physical embodiments of computer programs--render permeable the boundary between human and machine, nature and culture, born and made. The distinction between human and machine ceases to be clear-cut as, on the one hand, artificial intelligence entities are depicted with evolving sentience and a capacity for emotional development and, beyond that, for subjective agency, and, on the other hand, people become 'cyborged' under social and/or familial pressures to perform the roles expected of them, and basic human communication is mediated through technology (1). In questioning assumptions about the fixity of human nature, this body of work conforms with what Elaine Graham has identified as a 'scrutiny of the basic assumptions on which matters such as personal identity, the constitution of community, the grounds of human uniqueness and the relationship between body and mind are founded' (Graham 2002, p.2). Further, though, romantic narratives about a boy and the female mechanoid ('mecha') who comes into his life and transforms it are used thematically not to predict visions of a golden technological future, but to reassert a pattern of heterosexual bonding grounded in love, nurture and monogamy (2). Napier (2000) argues that this conservative impulse is a reaction against the increasing power of women in contemporary Japanese society, whereas Kumiko Sato argues that the maternal function attributed to the popularized form of female cyborgs and androids who save a powerless male hero is an aspect of the postwar Japanism which asserts Japanese uniqueness in its blending of traditional culture and new technology (Sato 2004, p.354). The reaffirmation of traditional social values under threat is underpinned by a more or less explicit dependence throughout boy-meets-mecha stories on an ancient folktale motif, that of the heavenly bride, or swan maiden, (3) and hence the stories can be seen as cyborg-age fairy tales. In this paper, we explore these narrative and thematic elements with particular reference to CLAMP's Chobits manga series (8 volumes, 2001-2002) (4), making some comparisons with Ken Akamatsu's manga A.I. Love You (5), and Masakazu Katsura's Video Girl Ai manga series (13 volumes, 1990-1992) (6). To ground our discussion of the heavenly bride schema, we will make some reference to Kosuke Fujishima's anime Ah! My Goddess (2000), an eclectic articulation of Asian, Norse and Christian mythologies into a representation of a universe organized as a blend of mystic power and digital programming. This film--an offshoot of a popular TV anime series--does not strictly belong to the 'boy meets mecha' narrative schema we are primarily concerned with, but offers clear evidence for the currency of the heavenly bride schema in contemporary manga and anime.

Ultimately, the schema is a redeployment for younger audiences of a character configuration that, Kumiko Sato (2004, pp.348-49) argues, originated in cyberpunk and was thence taken up in manga: a Japanese female hero linked with an inept male figure who is weaker and more human than her. By the late-1990s, Sato notes, 'female cyborgs and androids have been safely domesticated and fetishized into maternal and sexual protectors of the male hero', and their function 'is usually reduced to either a maid or a goddess obediently serving her beloved male master, the sole reason for her militant nature'. Sato also argues that the reduction of strong female cyborgs to maternal guardians 'seems symptomatic of Japanese identity concerning both race and gender' (p.349). While this configuration is clearly present in the texts we are concerned with, they seem already to have moved to a more self-reflexive phase and now interrogate and even satirise the convention, especially its implications for gendering. …

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